Australia has a productivity problem: our current GDP growth is the result of population increases, not workforce participation or productivity improvements.
Addressing this will be hard to achieve if Australian governments don’t innovate, as they are often a jurisdiction’s largest employer, procurer and capital spender.
Unfortunately, investing in increasing public sector productivity and capability can be a hard sell, particularly when an election is imminent. This is because a stand-alone allocation to public sector innovation is rarely sexy or vote winning.
It also has limited impact in changing the cultural or authorising environment if it is seen as an eyes-glaze-over data project rather than a solution to a policy challenge that resonates with the community.
So how can the budget process provide an opportunity to genuinely disrupt the way the public sector performs? By quarantining a proportion of funds within all new expenditure to spend on approaching the policy development or project delivery using data integration.
Quarantining is required because without dedicated allocation of funds within a specific program of work, government’s ability to innovate will continue to face the same challenges it always faces: siloed approaches; a disconnect between data, innovation, and policy; and an authorising environment that doesn’t facilitate data sharing.
Government leaders of all colours and in all jurisdictions have understood the power and opportunity of data sharing, and some good progress is being made. However, more needs to be done and examples in the 2019 Federal Budget — and Budget reply speech — demonstrate there a multiple ways this could be achieved.
The government’s main revenue proposal was to make a relatively small investment in automation and data sharing to reap $2.1 billion over five years by “simplifying and automating” the social security reporting system. It is controversial, but it also presents an opportunity. If those receiving support or a benefit from the federal government can have their eligibility for payments assessed in real time, what does that look like for those who are suffering long wait times for government assistance in other areas?
Consider the opportunity to invest in sharing data and using algorithms to automatically assess people’s eligibility and facilitate access in real time to preventative, responsive or supporting services.
There is a complexity that comes with predictive analytics, the investment required to boost data sharing capability, and the investment required to drive cultural change. But the reception this welfare savings announcement received might have been more positive from stakeholders if it was tethered to a positive investment in automation — one that re-invests a proportion of the savings into data sharing to improve prevention services, or puts money into the pockets of those who need it the most when they need it?
Drought assistance is one example of how this could work. The Government has committed $6.3 billion in drought assistance and concessional loans for farmers and farming communities. The Opposition has also made a commitment to investing in drought relief.
If there can be an investment in making sure there is accuracy in real time payments to welfare recipients, what would that look like for those eligible for assistance in times of natural disasters or drought?
Currently, both members of a household need to apply for the federal government’s drought assistance package using separate application forms. It would be a good thing to reduce the time created by both the paperwork and the delay in payments to these eligible recipients, not to mention minimising the pain of bureaucracy at a time your whole world has been turned upside down.
The Government has committed $282 million for an additional 10,000 home care packages to help older people who want to stay in their homes, which according to estimates will still leave around 100,000 people waiting, some for more than a year.
Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) makes the point that lengthy waiting times particularly disadvantage those who cannot afford to pay for care and support during this waiting period.
These waiting periods impact on hospitalisations and entries into residential care, both of which create worse outcomes for citizens and government budgets. While the long-term challenges are being worked through, LASA argues the government needs to ensure identification of genuine financial disadvantage is accounted for in determinations for priority assessment and access.
An investment of some of these funds into data sharing provides an opportunity to achieve this, while expediting the process and reducing red tape.
There is bipartisan support for investment in this area. The government has committed $382 million over three years to improve prevention and responses under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. Importantly, this funding will include support for crisis response, accommodation and long-term prevention. For its impact to be maximised, it should be supported by an allocation to invest in automated data sharing that captures cumulative impacts and circumstances of the whole family. Without integrated data sharing, too often this picture is lost, the broader impact is underestimated, and service delivery is not optimised. Appropriate and safe use of integrated data could enable a more complete family picture and circumstances, capture longitudinal context, and be targeted to unlock not just appropriate responsive supports, but also early intervention opportunities.
Social impact investing
The government has committed $14.1 million for social impact investing trials to address unemployment and vulnerable families. A further $5m will support a taskforce focused on a social impact investment strategy. This new allocation, added to $30 million of commitments in last year’s budget, will see $6.7 million spent on building capacity in impact measurement and the development of an impact framework.
Impact Investing only succeeds if governments work, ideally together across tiers, but also internally across departments, to measure impact through qualitative and quantitative data sharing. Establishing not just the funds, but the authorising environment to enable this data sharing, presents an opportunity to reform how government evaluates the impact of programs, and approaches to solving wicked social policy challenges.
Transport and infrastructure
Most of the opportunities for data sharing exist between government agencies. But there are also opportunities for open data release, especially through the internet of things (IOT) and infrastructure.
Both parties have made significant infrastructure commitments, such as government commitments for major road upgrades in Queensland ($4 billion), NSW ($7.3 billion) and Victoria ($6.2 billion). The opposition has indicated significant investment in infrastructure projects like the Western Sydney Rail Line and a $10 billion funding facility for Infrastructure Australia.
The possibilities for embedding new infrastructure investments with smart IOT technology is a key opportunity to use and release data to unlock productivity improvements for governments and beyond.
America, China, France and the Netherlands are just some of the countries investing in smart roads. Industries such as mining and trucking have benefited already from the integration of data analytics to deliver considerable productivity improvements.
Enabling the collection and sharing of such data to the wider commuting population should not be underestimated, in terms of its potential to unlock further innovation and productivity gains through more efficient route options and traffic management in real-time as well as integrated urban planning approaches.
Australia is already engaged in trialling a number of innovative infrastructure projects, but this approach to increasing the productivity return on investment needs to be streamlined, and this is a common call. For example, a data and IoT strategy for each new government asset to be built has been called for by the Australian Computer Society’s report Australia’s IoT Opportunity: Driving Future Growth.
Data for good
This budget shows that the appropriate use and sharing of data can be a key innovation and productivity opportunity across portfolio and policy challenges.
Linear budget allocation for portfolios should be re-imagined so that new investment is approached with integrated portfolio delivery and evaluation objectives, underpinned by evidence drawn from data sharing.
Regardless of who wins the election, governments need to be more innovative, productive and impactful. The data sharing journey has been well and truly begun for most jurisdictions but now is the time to take it up a gear.